Thursday, 6 April 2017

Theatre review: 42nd Street

The pull-quote on the poster promises one of the most famous openings in musical theatre - no, not Elaine Paige's vagina, but the seemingly infinite rows of tap-dancing chorus girls and boys who fill the stage as the curtain goes up on 42nd Street. Harry Warren (music,) Al Dubin (lyrics,) Michael Stewart & Mark Bramble's (book - Bramble also directs) musical is based on a novel, presumably a pretty short one as this classic story of overnight stardom is the Broadway success fantasy at its simplest. Peggy (Clare Halse) is fresh off the bus in New York when she flukes her way into the chorus of a new Broadway show. During the out-of-town tryouts though, leading lady Dorothy (Sheena Easton) breaks her leg, and the only wait, Sheena Easton? I haven't heard that name in decades. OK, fair enough, Sheena Easton it is. The only way for the show to go on is to cancel all the previews, bring the Broadway opening forward, rehearse Peggy in the lead in 36 hours straight and open to the critics immediately.

Look, don't ask me why they think that's the logical solution, especially given their show is basically a revue and they could have just got half a dozen actresses to cover the songs. Something something magic of Broadway *jazz hands.*

There are a number of sub-plots, including Dorothy trying to hide her toy-boy lover Pat (Norman Bowman) from the sugar daddy (Bruce Montague) who's financing the whole production, and a tacked-on romance between Peggy and the director Julian (Tom Lister,) who alternates between giving her pep talks of the "you're carrying this entire company on your shoulders and it's highly unlikely you'll get this right, this is probably going to be a disaster and everyone will hate you so keep that in mind, no pressure, I believe in you, GOOD LUCK AND DON'T FUCK IT UP but you probably will LOL" variety and grabbing her for a snog. She does seem generally OK with the latter but this is a 1980 musical set in 1933 so nobody really asks her. (And don't get me onto the politics of "Keep Young and Beautiful," one of the most horrifying songs ever written.)

But it's hard to judge 42nd Street in the same way that you would any other musical, because it isn't really like any other musical: It's designed almost as the apogee of all that is Broadway, especially in terms of budget. There's an endless parade of elaborate sets and costumes, but most of all there's a large main cast and a massive chorus that regularly fills the stage with the show's signature tap numbers.

It's also so feel-good cheesy it defies parody, with one scene in particular feeling like it came straight out of The Simpsons, as Andy (Graeme Henderson) passes a group of chorus girls on their lunch break:
Girls: "Hey Andy!"
Andy: "Not now girls, I'm busy."
Girls: "Too busy... TO DANCE?"
Andy: *immediately launches into lengthy tap routine.*

Although the story, such as it is, revolves around the leading ladies, much of the heavy lifting is done by Stuart Neal who, as Billy, the leading man in the show-within-a-show, triple-threats his way through a number of the showstopping numbers. Of course they're almost all showstopping numbers because that's the kind of ridiculous show this is. In terms of the quality of the actual material 42nd Street would be a disaster in a small-scale revival at Southwark Playhouse. It's designed to have absolute truckloads of money thrown at it, and that's exactly what's happened here.

And it's pleasing that the story does acknowledge the importance of the people in the chorus, because they're really what makes the show - there's some mildly funny turns from Jasna Ivir and Christopher Howell as the writers, but apart from that the leads aren't the most charismatic I've ever seen. It's the tightly-choreographed chorus who steal the show every time, and who drew my attention even when they were sharing the stage with named characters (I kept an eye on Dylan Mason, who only a couple of months ago was at the opposite extreme of the scale, getting his nips out at the 50-seater Finborough.) It almost seems unfair that just throwing money at it can elevate material that has so many things wrong with it, but there's no denying that the sheer scale of 42nd Street makes it a fun night.

42nd Street by Harry Warren, Al Dubin, Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble, based on the novel by Bradford Ropes and the screenplay by Rian James, James Seymour and Whitney Bolton, is booking until the 14th of October at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane.

Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Brinkhoff/Moegenburg.

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